Iraqi Kurds risk death as stowaways to Sweden

STOCKHOLM - Kurdish refugees from Iraq, sealed in a container and loaded on to an Estonian ferry's cardeck, nearly suffocated on the night crossing to Sweden, but were rescued by chance yesterday. The 64 men, women and children spent nine hours in the container before heat and lack of oxygen forced them to bang on the walls of their metal box.

Normally there is no one on the car deck of the MS Estonia during ferry crossings of the Baltic Sea, and the sound of pounding fists was faint compared to the cracking of ice under the ship. But a crew member, making a brief fire patrol three hours after departure from Tallinn in Estonia heard them. The container was opened with a cutting-torch. Steam and misery poured out. The heat in the 12m by 2.5m (36ft by 7 1/2 ft) container was about 70C (158F) when it was opened.

The refugees included 24 men, 14 women and 26 children, the youngest eight months old, police said.

Before being taken to refugee centres, where they were expected to seek asylum, the group of mostly Iraqi Kurds told police they had paid dollars 2,500 ( pounds 1,700) each to be smuggled to Sweden.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and relaxation of border controls, hundreds of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East have made their way to Russia and then to the Baltics, where they pay smugglers to transport them by boat to Sweden. In most cases, they are dropped in dinghies in the sea, close to a Swedish island. This is the first reported case of refugees being packed into a container. The container was placed on a trailer and driven on to the ferry's car deck about six hours before it left on its regular crossing to Stockholm.

It is unlikely that the Iraqi Kurds will be deported back to their homes.